October 1, 2007
Automotive Review: Toyota Prius
Some friends and I went to dinner on a recent weekend. They volunteered their car, but didn't want to drive... well, one was willing to drive, but everyone else thought that me driving an unfamiliar vehicle was the smarter option. They said they expected me to blog about it, and I've got a solid month of entries under my belt and don't feel like stopping, so here goes.
First off, the vehicle itself. I've never been a fan of the Prius's shape -- it looks like a half-assed Star Trek shuttlepod to me. And then there are the batteries. Last I checked, nobody really knows how long the battery pack lasts, and the pack is fairly large and full of unfriendly chemicals. I get a special feeling in the cockles of my heart* when I think that the tree-huggers' favorite status symbol might be an environmental disaster if/when you need to yank out the power cells.
Also having to do with the vehicle's shape is the rear windshield -- it's actually split in two, with the spoiler being pretty much in the middle of the field of view. And it's not even particularly attractive; I think they just put it there to keep the car from looking too much like a station wagon. My friend says you eventually get used to it; I just got used to only checking my side mirrors. This could cause problems down the road for habitual speeders like me.
The dashboard feels like the engineers tried to do too much (one person in an online discussion said it felt "beta"). It was actually kind of disconcerting -- there are no gauges directly in front of me, so it felt like the interior lights weren't functioning. The gas gauge, speedometer and odometer are recessed into the dash all the way up where the forward-swung windshield ends, and I think it's actually under the dash and showing up like an HUD.
Everything else was in the monitor built into the center console that houses the GPS navigation system. Again, it has a very beta feel to it: Some things required explanation to be able to use, and some features I expected (like being able to touch-select a route instead of having to press its marker in the map legend) were missing.
One thing that annoyed me is that the system for the most part won't respond unless the car is stopped, theoretically for safety -- you have to pull off the road to dick with the GPS. Except that the airbag system can tell if there's a passenger, so the GPS should tie into that and let the passenger change things. Thankfully the
Shut Up You Stuffy Wench Suspend Navigation function works while the car is moving. Like an Apple product, it probably just needs a couple revisions to be really solid. And like an Apple product it's probably best to wait for those couple of revisions before even considering a purchase.
Next on the list is the continuously-variable transmission (CVT). It carries the sluggishness of all automatic transmissions, especially when you start moving, and doesn't even provide the shifting feedback that I'd get in a regular automatic. Once the CVT gets up to speed the car continues to accelerate without any change in engine noise or any other indication outside of the speedometer. When combined with the useless rear windshield, this becomes a big problem for habitual speeders. (No, I didn't get ticketed. But it wasn't for lack of trying.)
Finally we get to the gear selector, another beta "feature". Instead of a normal selector like any other automatic in existence, this one has a tiny joystick in the dash that lets you choose between neutral, drive and reverse. There is no "park" option; it's a completely separate button. The only reason I can see for this is that they were changing everything else, and why should something as simple as the shifter be any different? I was kind of surprised the steering wheel didn't come with force feedback.
Things I liked? Well, the in-the-vicinity key and power button were cool. Unlike my Jetta it runs on normal gasoline instead of premium. And it has four wheels. That's always nice.
So, yeah. I was significantly less than impressed. I'm sure the mileage is nice -- it better be considering how much you have to pay for the vehicle -- but if that's the best the car companies have to offer as far as green technologies go I think I'll pass. Part of it is the automagic transmission -- I'm spoiled by my manual. If the computer were smart enough to cope with a human shifting gears, or at least an autostick, I might consider it if the rest of it looked like a real car instead of an engineer's acid trip.
If I felt the need to up my hippie cred, I'd be more likely to purchase a PZEV. They're just like real cars, and some of them get slightly better mileage than their standard-built cousins. And the price from what I hear isn't much more. I could potentially get behind something like that.